Chapter 1 — CONCEPTION

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Micael strummed his fingers on the lamppost. Waiting. Ten minutes on this noisy corner and already he was walking in circles. She was late again.

Boom! Bang! Wham!

Micael jumped at the noise. He turned and saw a keg rolling toward him. He skipped over it.

In front of him, a few feet away, suds gushed from fractured kegs and sloshed at the wheels of a “BlastBeer” delivery truck. A figure dressed in a brown uniform with a logo on the back stared at the foam around his feet. The smell of lager filled the air.

The driver jumped out of the cab. “You worthless piece of trash!” He pushed the other man against the truck. “That’s it. No more. I’m done with ya!” He swung, knocking him down. Then with rhythmic kicks in the ribs, “Stupid… no-good… pain in the ass!” The final blow was a kick to the head. “I shoulda sold you when I had the chance!”

The figure on the ground did nothing in defense.

Micael made his way through the stave fragments and put a hand on the driver’s shoulder. “Ease up! You’re killing the guy.”

A bulldog face turned around toward Micael. “Butt out, butt head. Nothing to do with you.”

Their eyes locked. A stalemate.

The truck driver huffed. “It’s not a crime to kill a machine!” He gave Micael a shove, then pulled down the cargo gate, jumped in the cab and drove off.

A crowd gathered around the figure lying in a sea of suds. A tall fellow leaned over and studied its gray skin, flat-sided head, exposed joints, and mechanical physique. “It’s an artie, a struttin’ RTX model. Looks like its busted.”

Someone else said, “ Wonder why the driver left it instead of getting it fixed?”

“Arties ain’t very bright,” the tall fellow answered.

Micael watched it twitch. “Maybe. But RoboTech makes a fine machine. With regular maintenance it should last years.”

“Hi,” came from behind. “What’s wrong with the artie?”

“It’s about time. I wish you wouldn’t always be late.”

Dawna grabbed Micael’s chin and gave him big eyes. “I said hi.” She kissed him.

“Hi,” he replied with no enthusiasm. “But you were late.” When he saw the muscles of her jaw, his eyes glanced back to the motionless robot. “The artie? I don’t know. I guess it’s having a bad day.”

“Ahh, poor thing. What should we do?”

“It’s not our problem. Let’s get out of here. I’ve got six minutes to get my head.” He grabbed her hand and tugged at her inclination to help.

“Your what?”

They wove through the crowd and crossed the street. A jogger slammed into Micael’s shoulder, jostling him into Dawna, and kept running.

“Hey,” Micael yelled.

“Get the hell outta the way,” the jogger yelled back.

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— 2 —

Micael grumbled, “Jeez, doesn’t anybody say they’re sorry any more?”

They made their way to the main entrance of the Vomisa Corporation and Micael stuck his face at the security frame. The door opened and the couple walked in. Micael pointed at a door on the left. “Go in there. I’ve got to visit the washroom.” He disappeared around a corner.

Dawna pushed open the stainless steel door. By the dim light of high windows she could make out the contours of benches, tables and desks. Against the cinder block walls, she saw instruments, machines, cables and racks.

The door clicked shut behind her—she jumped forward. She scanned the murky room. Curiosity took her into the quiet, foreign space. A splash of color caught her eye. She walked closer. On the table before her was a humanoid head. It was staring at her. She felt an eerie tingle go up the back of her neck. She moved away, further down the aisle.

A manlike form, headless and stripped of skin, stood in an assembly rack. Its torso bulged with wires, gadgets, colors, and mystery. Arms and legs swelled with pink butanol muscles woven around ivory-white ceramic bones. Cords, wires and tubes twisted up from its neck and shoulders and, like the strings of a large marionette, rose to the ceiling as if for some invisible puppeteer.

She heard a faint buzzing, like a transformer, coming from behind the humanoid. This must be what Micael is working on. My competition for his attentions. A new kind of artie. She pointed a finger at it. “Well, Mr. Nohead, does he hug you and kiss you, too?”

Points of light began to flicker in the crevices of the torso. The arms rose up, the torso leaned forward. Dawna’s dark eyes widened. She stepped back, bumped into a roller cart, yelled, then jumped forward and fell onto the headless body. It put its arms around her. She panicked and pushed away. Her toe caught under the base of the assembly rack. It pitched forward. With the sounds of metal clanging on concrete, the rack with its plastic torso pinned Dawna to the floor. A cross beam pressed across her throat. Gasping for air, she struggled to get up but she could not get the leverage to raise the heavy rack. She tried to cry for help but only a dry whisper came out and died. She needed air. Her chest sucked in half breaths.

Dawna’s eyes blurred. Light-headed, her mind flirted with panic. So this is how it ends. What will Micael think when he shows up and finds me dead?

There was a humming in her ears and she heard clicks and clangs. She could not tell if the sounds were real.

“Damn it, Dawna.” Micael pulled up on the toppled rack. “What the hell are you doing?” He needed both arms to raise it. “Quick, crawl out. I can’t hold this all day.”

She wiggled out sideways, then rolled over on her knees coughing and rubbing her throat.

“What the hell happened? This is expensive equipment?” he ranted. He realigned the torso in the rack, then offered a hand to help her to her feet.

“I don’t know. I just…” She stopped, then huffed. “Micael, don’t you care if I’m all right?”

He jerked his head back. “I can see you’re okay.”

Her icy frown melted into a smile. “I’m just glad you showed up. I don’t know what I did. Are you mad?” She tried to hug him.

He pushed her to arm’s length. “No, I’m not mad, but jeez, don’t mess with my stuff. At least you could say you’re sorry.” He turned to the humanoid body and began sorting through the braids of wires coming from its neck.

“Sorry? I didn’t do anything. It grabbed me. It should be the one to say it’s sorry.”

“It will.” He fiddled with the tangled wires. “The Vomisa robot is going to apologize whenever it causes problems.” He started to mumble to himself. “I’ve had it with rudeness, incompetence, clumsiness…”

“I guess you’re having a bad day, too?” When he didn’t acknowledge, she went to his side. “What turned that thing on, anyway?”

“It’s voice-activated. You said something?”

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— 3 —

“All I said was…” She grinned. “…was, ‘how you doing.’”

Micael walked over to a table and picked up the robot’s head. His eyes followed the glass wires from its neck up to the ceiling, over a pulley, then down to the torso. “The damn command circuits in the head were supposed to be off. What you said shouldn’t have activated the arms.”

“Can’t you fix them?”

“Yeah, fix them for the hundredth time. This new robot is supposed to understand normal human speech better than the RT models. But I swear, the sociogonic reasoning circuit is no better than old fashion context analysis. I don’t know how we’re ever going to get these things to understand vague language syntax.” He placed the head in the transparent vexolene box. “Seems like we need to put a lifetime of experiences in the memory, somehow.”

She walked up behind him and put her arms around him. “Forget about your robots now. I’m here.” She tossed her head and raven hair fell over midnight eyes. Her straight nose was the only stark feature on a creamy face that was easy to look at—and it wanted to be looked at now. But Micael’s attention was elsewhere.

He tightened the straps that kept the head suspended in the box. “If the screwed up reasoning circuits weren’t pressing enough, I’ve got to take this prototype head to the university and get the sensory integration lattice and the amygdala circuits installed.”

“You haven’t kissed me yet.”

He turned around with a stone look, then a half smile. “Yeah, I’m having a bad day. Not as bad as the artie outside, though.” He kissed her. “I’m glad you made it here.”

“I was glad you asked me. I didn’t mind the drive.”

There was a silent moment.

“Want to see my booboo?” She unbuttoned her blouse and pointed at the large abrasion between her breasts where the rack had fallen on her.

He put his lips on her chest, kissed the red mark. Then again. She put her hands on his head and eased him to the left and down. Only an appeal to his lust could break through his obsession with robots. He picked her up and put her on a slate counter. She finally had his full attention.

*    *    *

The robot head saw and heard what they did but did not understand. It did not know that what they did had been done trillions of times before, that this ordinary act was biological, romantic, carnal, ecstatic, mundane, exhilarating, private, profane, poetic, adaptive, ephemeral. In time it would come to know that on this occasion, here in this room, this trivial event would have a profound significance.

The couple lay in each others arms.

While Dawna enjoyed the echoes of passion, Micael pondered a bipolar bridge between the sensory integration lattices and the amygdala circuits. Then he wondered what went wrong with the aural pattern relay that caused Dawna’s accident. And he remapped the critical path to full production of the new artie.

As they dressed, he said, “Sure glad you came to Flat Point. I wanted you to see where I work. Isn’t it soop?”

“Yeah.” She looked around and smiled. “I would’ve been here sooner but I had to stay at work til 4:30. Had to meet with the school principal about next week’s lunch menu.”

Micael swept his fingers through his hair. “I thought I might miss you on the corner out front.”

She did the same. “Couldn’t find a parking spot.”

He grabbed the transparent vexolene box with the robotic head. “So you can drive me back to Risen Falls tomorrow?”

“Sure. And tonight?”

“Spend the night at my place?”

She smiled.

Micael and Dawna hustled out of the building into the clear, cool night. The couple walked to the corner, then crossed with a crowd. They passed the artie still lying in the gutter.

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— 4 —

Micael shook his head. “Arties get no respect. Won’t happen with our new model.”

They walked less than two blocks, entered a three-story building and took the elevator to the third floor.

Micael turned the walls up to a soft glow, set the vexolene box on his unmade bed and fell on his back beside it. “It’s been a long day.”

Dawna turned to see if he was talking to her or the head. He was looking at the head. She kicked off her shoes and sat next to him. “Sure was,” she answered anyway. Now she stared into the box, too. Cold eyes stared back at her. “So this artie is going to get respect?”

“You betcha. The Vomisa Corp. model will not only look more human, it will actually be able to think something like us. I hope.” He gazed at the ceiling. “It will really be doing statistical ideation interactions of what we call notion components, things like knowledge, experiences and psychological imprints. One of the problems we’re working on at the lab is how to load in all these mental pieces into a synthetic brain at a faster rate.”

She brought her elbows down to the bed and put her chin on her palms. “Why don’t you just put all that knowledge on a few computer chips?”

“We do put some things on chips, like vocabularies, conversion factors, equations, basic knowledge. But it’s more important to be able to learn from experiences. We also have to build in useful forgetting.”

“Useful forgetting?”

“We could never build a memory big enough to remember every little detail, and we wouldn’t want to. You know, like remembering the name of every person you’ve ever met.”

She nodded her head as if she understood, but not as if she cared. “Micael, you know when we get back to Risen Falls, I wouldn’t mind you staying with me a few days. Would you like to?”

His eyes were back on the head in he box. “But getting them to say ‘I’m sorry.’ That will take some programming.”

Dawna stared as intently at him as he did the head. She missed him. They had been a couple since they first met in an undergraduate math course. Only in the past year, when he took a job with Vomisa Corporation, did their relationship become a long distance one. Coming to Flatpoint to drive him back to Risen Falls seemed to be the only way she got to see him. She tugged at his arm. “Will you?”

Micael thought back to the question. “I’d like to.” He sprang from the bed. “Want something to drink?”

She nodded. He poured two glasses of Chablis and she followed him out on the small porch overlooking the city.

They looked out upon the clear night. A sea of stars hung over a panorama of Flatpoint, a modest sized town with old buildings, small businesses and no apparent reason to prosper. In the shadowed landscape lights flickered along the streets, and shone over stores, and glowed from windows, together proclaiming a universe of humanity.

“It’s not that I don’t want to,” Micael said as he bent over the railing. “But after the syn-psy guys at the university put in those circuits and components and some Asimovian programming into this head, I have to get back here to Flatpoint. In a couple of days we’re going to…”

“Oh, Micael. There’s more to life than just robots.”

“Like what?” He looked at her—and he seemed to be serious.

She turned away from him. “Really, sometimes you’re so single-minded. So self-centered. There are other people in this world, you know.”

“Name two.” With his hands on her waist he turned her around toward him looking for a smile. “Yes, I know there are other people, but robots are easier to deal with—at least for me.”

“You live in a world of people.”

“Yeah. But humans are so unpredictable, emotional and irrational. In spite of our large brains, we still act pretty much like animals and almost everything we do is based on some biological drive.”

A soft breeze lifted her hair. She shook her head. “That’s not the…”

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— 5 —

“Under all that glorious gray matter is a primitive brain not much different from lower animals. We can trace our evolution back to the reptiles. And it’s their brain that lies at our core. It’s that reptilian brain in us that is the root of every base human response—violence, anger, greed.”

She put her finger on his chin. “But people also are kind and caring.”

“And logical sometimes, too. We’re like chameleons. Within the cool and deliberate realms of science and culture we’re so rational and humane. Then in the heat of a moment our passion, lust, revenge, or anger color our actions. Sometimes we’re idealistic and intellectual, but more often our hormones give us away, revealing us to be only animals in the hell of our own bodies.”

“If I didn’t know you better, I might believe you’re as cynical and antisocial as you’d like people to think.” She wrapped her arms around his chest and gave him a squeeze as they gazed at the brilliant night sky.

And then the stars disappeared.

A deep orange-yellow stain burst across the heavens like a flower’s bloom in time-lapse photography. The aura bleached the black sky, spread to the horizons in all directions, swept over a dawn in the east and a sunset in the west, then converged on Earth’s other side where it stained the sapphire sky. People around the world pointed at the heavens, shook their heads and rubbed their eyes. The sky was wrong! And it left them speechless. Within seconds the amber glow faltered, then left the planet.

Above Flatpoint, the sky turned pitch black again and the stars were reborn.

“What was that!?” asked Dawna as she scanned the sky.

“I don’t know. But it was awesome!”

They looked a question at each other.

Dawna started inside. “Why don’t we call my friend Jake at the observatory and see if they noticed anything.”

He followed her back into the room. She sat down on the bed next to the I-port on the night stand and commanded, “Link to Jake Strand.”

A small three-dimensional face appeared atop the I-port.

“Jake Strand here. Oh, it’s you, Dawna. Is something wrong?”

“I don’t know, Jake. What happened outside? Did you see it? The light in the sky?”

”Light? No… just a second. Got another call.” The image disappeared. Less than a minute later Jake was visible again. “That was Dr. Nur-Al-Din, head of the observatory. She asked me the same thing. Like I told her, everything looks okay from here—just some odd blips on the multispectral neutrino array that was doing an aggregation of the M16 region. I don’t think it was anything significant. Who’s your friend?”

She turned to see Micael standing next to her. “Oh, yes. I’d like you and Roda to meet Micael. We’ll be driving back to Risen Falls tomorrow. How about coffee?”

“Sounds great. Old Paris Cafe. Around one o’clock. I have more calls coming in. See you.”

*    *    *

The skull in the vexolene box was alive but unaware. It could feel its strapping and the sway brought on by gentle curves in the highway. Its eyes stared out the back window as the buildings of Flatpoint receded into the haze. It watched the other cars all moving at uniform speed, and the bare trees on drab hillocks racing against a linen sky. The eyes saw a landscape that looked as much like the end of a crimson autumn as the beginning of a verdant spring. But none of the sights had meaning. And neither did the conversations coming from the front seats.

“This damn highway. I wish we could go faster. I can’t wait to show you my place.” Dawna played with Micael’s blonde hair as she stared at his profile, those green eyes, turned-up nose, and dimpled chin. In her eyes it all went together so well.

He raised his eyebrows. “And what exactly are you going to show me in your apartment?”

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— 6 —

She leaned across the console and put her hand in his shirt. “This,” she answered with her open lips on his neck.

“Dawna, it’s me, your dad. Are you there?”

“Oh, great.” Dawna settled back into her seat. She commanded the I-port on the dash, “Ready link.” The face and shoulders of a handsome man formed in miniature just in front of the instrument panel.

“Oh hi, Daddy. What’s up?”

“Did you see that orange sky last night? Wasn’t that something? What do you think it was?”

“Yes, I did, Daddy. It was yellow. And I don’t know what it was.”

“Well it was kind of yellow-orange. Do you suppose it had anything to do with sunspots?”

“I said I didn’t know, Daddy.” Instead of looking at the virtual image she watched the steering wheel oscillate in response to the road.

“I personally think it was the aurora borealis,” the image said.

She let out a long breath. “I’m sorry I haven’t called you all week. Can I buzz you when I get home?”

“Oh, I must be interrupting you. I’m such a pest.”

“You’re not a pest. I’m just busy now.”

“We’ll talk later then, sweetie.”

“Right, Daddy. Later. End link.”

“Your dad thinks the yellow sky last night was northern lights?” Micael said. “I thought it spread too far across the sky for that. Let’s see if there’s anything more about it on the news. Link news.” From the I-port another phantom cube of light resolved itself into a three-dimensional scene featuring Cary Grant and Doris Day.

“Oh, great. I ask for news and I get a movie. An oldie,” growled Micael as he studied the cube image. “Don’t you hate it when they 3D-ize the old movies?” He reissued the command. “Link news.”

Now an old sci-fi movie materialized next to the first movie.

He banged his fist on the I-port. “Damn it.”

“Micael, don’t get so upset. It’s not that important.”

“Link news,” he shouted as he rapped the I-port again.

The I-port instantly splintered into twenty-four smaller cubes each with a different movie.

“Oh, oh,” she mumbled. “Now we have 24 old movies. I guess there’s something wrong with it. I don’t use it all that much.”

“This is supposed to be an information port, damn it. Movies are hardly a prime source of information, unless you want a stale history of human experiences…” His eyes widened. He snapped his fingers. “That’s it! Accelerated experiences. Watching old movies. That’s the answer for the new advanced artie! We can imprint their basic motives, their primary psychological instincts of human values by having them watch old films… dozens at a time… at high speed. We’ll out-artie the RT Corp.”

“Uh huh,” she replied. She was glad he was distracted from his anger. She touched the manual control on the dash and all of the picture cubes evaporated. Once more she reached across the console and put her arms around his neck. She studied his blinking eyes, his teeth biting his lip. He’s adorable when he’s deep in thought. She waved her hand in front of his face. “Micael, we can pick up where we left off.”

A soft beep and a stilted voice interjected. “Travel plan complete. Risen Falls exit ramp in thirty seconds.”

Dawna growled under her breath as she sat up. “Sometimes I think life is too complicated.”

The convoy of vehicles began a high speed dance choreographed by a committee of computers. The cruiser darted to the left, accelerated, then moved into the right lane. “Please switch to manual control,” the car voice said.

At the exit ramp Dawna disengaged the autopilot and took hold of the steering wheel. The cruiser decelerated from 200 kph to 60 as it angled off the highway. The ramp widened to three lanes leading to gated exits. Overhead a large green sign warned, “Risen Falls vehicle restriction in effect.” Dawna steered right to the RESIDENTS ONLY gate.

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— 7 —

Micael craned at the queue of vehicles in the center lane marked AVAILABLE ACCESS. “Wow, look at all the people waiting to get in.”

“Still too many cars in Risen Falls,” Dawna lamented.

“Lucky for me I’m traveling with a resident.”

As Dawna maneuvered the cruiser into city traffic, Micael stared at the new buildings that had sprouted up on the outskirts of the old town he had left. Each was a mesh of geometric solids jutting out at odd angles. Each had its own color and style. They were all ugly, he thought. He felt like a stranger.

Soon the roads narrowed and became congested. The buildings grew closer, more picturesque and older. The trees stood taller and fuller and there were concrete sidewalks with people—hundreds of people. This was the Risen Falls he remembered.

After they parked in an underground garage, the couple walked hand in hand a few blocks to the Old Paris Cafe. The sun was out but there still was a chill in the air. The doorway to the cafe was blocked by a line of patrons waiting to get inside. Dawna and Micael looked for a table on the red-brick patio but all the wrought-iron tables with their uncomfortable metal chairs were already taken.

Micael huffed. “This is ridiculous. I hate waiting.”

“Yes, sweetie, I know,” said Dawna. “Take a deep breath and it’ll be all right. Aren’t you afraid something is going to happen to your robot head in this crowd?” she asked.

Micael glanced down at the vexolene box in his left hand. It was shrouded by one of his pull-over sweaters. The neck provided an opening for the handle while the long empty arms dragged uselessly along the ground. “I couldn’t leave it in the car.”

“Quick!” She grabbed his free hand and pulled him toward a just-vacated table under the canopy.

They sat quietly in the chill of the shade, the sweater-covered box under Micael’s chair. He looked for an empty table in the sun while Dawna craned her neck in search of her friends. “Wonder where they are?”

Two hands from behind covered Dawna’s eyes. “Roda,” she guessed.

A red-headed woman in a red plastic raincoat unmasked Dawna, then mussed her hair. “Who else but Rowdy Roda. How’s my favorite school dietician? You’re looking good. I like your hair. See I got a new look too. Boy it’s good to see you.”

Her tall, lean companion put out his hand to greet Micael.

“Micael Wyman, this is Jake Strand whom you saw briefly last night,” Dawna said pointing at each in turn, ”and this is his wife and my friend Roda.”

They all shook hands and sat down.

“Wasn’t that amber haze across the sky weird?” Dawna offered.

“Yeah it was,” Roda said with a laugh. “It was out of this world. But I didn’t really see it. I was working on my spoon sculpture. Hey, you know what, I’ve got some really fantastic news.”

“Oh, great. Tell me.”

“Welcome to the Old Paris Cafe,” a robot waiter said with a French accent. “What do you wish to order?” The ungainly gray machine had an apron tied around its straight cylindrical body and a towel draped over one of its tubular arms.

Dawna addressed everyone. “Four espresso coffees?”

They all nodded.

“Bring some extra cream,” Jake added.

“Merci beaucoup beaucoup beaucoup,” the robot said and clopped away.

“God, I hate those machines,” Roda said. “They’re not worth a damn. And they got to be as expensive as hell to buy and maintain. Why do places like this bother?”

“We can go somewhere that has people waiters,” offered Dawna.

Roda waved her hand. “No, no, that’s okay. That would be too much trouble,” She shook her head. “They think dressing that can up with an apron and towel somehow makes it a waiter. And that pathetic French accent. I’d laugh if it wasn’t so pathetic.”

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— 8 —

“To be fair…” Micael cleared his throat. “…you got to realize that was one of the oldest RT models ever sold commercially.” He looked at Dawna who seemed to be moving her head side to side. He moved his feet back for a reassuring feel of the box under his chair. “It wasn’t…”

“So, what is this news you have?” asked Dawna.

“Well, you know how Jake and I have been trying to have a child without much luck? Well, tomorrow we go to the university clinic to give in vitro samples. They’re going to make us a baby in a test tube. Yeah, what do you think about that?”

“That’s fantastic.” Dawna turned to Micael. “Isn’t that wonderful, honey?”

“Yeah, that’s really great. But a…” Again he looked at Dawna, then back at Roda. “But I thought that artificial births of any kind were against the law?”

“Yes, in general that’s true,” Roda said. She searched his face for clues. “But Jake has this doctor friend at the university. He can legitimize the procedure as part of his research. Isn’t that right, Jake? We’ve ordered a girl.”

Micael shook his head. “Still, you know, there is a population problem.” Roda’s unblinking stare pushed his eyes to Jake. “Even though it’s down from twelve billion to just about eight and a half, the World Council set five billion as the limit before allowing people to try artificial conception methods.” He looked back at Roda. Her face was a stone.

Jake gave a weak smile, shrugged his shoulders slightly, then turned to Roda for the answer.

“I don’t give a chicken’s gizzard about the world population. Screw the World Council. We want our own child. Why shouldn’t we have one? Just because Jake’s sperm count is too low? It’s just not fair. Who the hell are you, anyway, to lecture me.”

Jake looked guilty and turned away.

Micael froze from the icy blast.

Dawna raised her arm and pointed. “Look, look. There’s an empty table over there in the sun. It’s a little chilly here.”

They all moved to the sunlit table and sat in silence for a moment. The mechanical waiter approached the table with four coffees and a tiny pitcher of cream on a tray. “Welcome to the Old Paris Cafe. What do you wish to order?”

“What do you mean ‘order’? That’s our order you have,” answered Roda gruffly.

“No, this is the order for that table over there,” replied the waiter pointing a tubular finger at the table they had left, now occupied by four elderly ladies.

Roda bent her head back as if she were going to gargle. “Help me, someone, before I mangle this stupid mechanical excuse for a waiter!”

“Calm down,” Jake said patting her hand. Then to the artie, “You have our order now. We changed tables.”

The robot paused a moment, backed up slightly, turned its optics toward the other table, then said, “I will have to check on this. One moment please.” It walked back into the cafe.

“Jeez, I’ve had it with arties,” Roda seethed. “I just don’t understand. Why do people buy them? What’s wrong with employing real people, instead? And what weirdos design those mechanical idiots, anyway?”

Jake again patted his wife’s hand. “Take it easy. No big deal.” He looked at Micael. “So what do you do, Micael?”

Micael couldn’t resist. He reached under his chair for his vexolene box and his heart stopped. It was gone. “My head is missing!”

Dawna calmed him. “It’s over there. You left it at the other table.”

He stumbled out of his chair, hurried to the other table, begged one patron to lift her feet off the sweater arms and carried his prize back. He placed the box in the middle of the table and pulled off the old sweater. Inside, bobbing on straps, was the white ceramic skull with loops of colored wire leaking from around the mandible. Sun reflections danced on its shiny dark eyes. “I’m one of those weirdos that designs mechanical idiots,” he said like a rooster. He gave Roda a side look and his chin.

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— 9 —

Roda gasped. “What the hell is that?”

Dawna cut in, “Micael is chief engineer at Vomisa Corporation. He’s working on a new kind of robot that will be much better than those old arties. Really, Roda, they won’t be anything like our waiter.”

“This is the G89U, Vomisa Corp’s first humanoid robot.” Micael was pumped with pride.

“Well, just the head, actually,” Dawna said with a funny grin.

“It will be light years ahead of RoboTech’s popular RTZ model. In fact that’s why I’m in town today—to work on the brains. Isn’t it beautiful? We’re trying to solve the problem of primary programming—how to imprint useful psychological instincts and wholesome human values. We think we can…”

“Instincts? Human values? You mean like love, aggression, morality and ethics? Pee puddles!” Roda slapped a hand on the table. “What the world needs is to devote its resources to solving real human problems, like child education and poverty. And health care. And euthanasia.”

“Roda is a humanist,” Jake said.

“Damn right, I’m a humanist. The human mind is the only intelligence in the universe. A beauty of nature, a marvel of evolution. Nothing can or will replace it. Not any god or robot. As the Greek sophist Protagoras said, Man is the measure of all things. And get that contraption off the table.”

Dawna and Jake looked at each other for help, but before either could reply, Micael’s words came out like bullets from a machine gun. “You’re saying you want humans to do backbreaking, boring, repetitive, and dangerous jobs? That doesn’t sound very humanistic to me. Robots can do those things. They’ll give people more leisure time. They’ll make our lives easier.”

“What a crock of crap!” Roda shouted back. “The last thing we need is to become dependent on more machines, more technology from more big corporations making more profits. What we need is to keep our roots, our contact with nature, to look for natural solutions.”

“Oh, yeah. Natural, like in vitro fertilization,” Micael countered.

“Come on, you guys,” begged Jake, “let’s change the subject.”

Dawna waved a finger at Micael. He put the sweater back over the box and put it down next to his chair.

No one spoke and the chatter from other tables filled the silence. Then the smell of coffee cut through the tense air.

A bow-legged man in an apron set four coffees on the table. “Sorry for the misunderstanding. My artie ain’t so good at people recognition.”

Dawna smiled at the man. “No problem.”

“So, Jake, what do you do at the observatory?” Micael asked.

“I’m an optics specialist there, and I dabble in finding new stars and galaxies on the large hubble arrays, when I get the chance.”

“So did you find out anything about that weird light in the sky last night?”

Jake came alive with enthusiasm. “From the world network reports, all sightings of the event on the night side of Earth speak of an orange or yellow cast to the sky—stars disappearing. Day reports mention hazy yellow skies. The amazing thing is, no astronomical instruments showed any fluctuations in energy across the visible spectrum. It wasn’t a cosmic ray bombardment or a solar flare up or any high energy phenomenon. However, all visual records, tapes, photos, and emulsions do show a loss of detail… a blurring… or scene averaging. A typical frame taken from the photonic compiler during the event shows, even with detail gone, there was no change in total luminance compared to frames taken before and just after the event.”

Dawna spoke up, “Were there any reports of injuries?”

“No, no. There couldn’t be any injuries,” Micael interrupted.

Dawna hid her face behind her coffee cup. “There could have been,” she said to the cup.

“Could it have been an atmospheric event?” asked Micael.

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— 10 —

Jake stirred his coffee. “You mean local to our planet? That doesn’t necessarily follow. Perhaps it was a cosmic event that only made itself visible when it encountered the Earth’s atmosphere. It couldn’t be just a perceptual phenomenon… I don’t think. Clearly something physical happened. Too many observers have confirmed that. Whatever it was, the entire scientific community has a lot of investigating to do. We have to find some evidence. We need to know if and how it affected the Earth, its people, the environment. I received a message at my home this morning from the National Science Administration advising me of a task force being convened in Washington.”

Roda showed no interest in Jake’s revelations. She clutched Dawna’s wrist. “Did I tell you, we’re going to call our baby Charity.”

From that point on there were two different conversations at the table. After an hour and several refills they all traded cordial good-byes, some warmer than others, and the two couples left in opposite directions.

*    *    *

“How was your weekend in Risen Falls,” Yuri Chenkov asked.

Micael rapped his knuckles on the skinless robot as he walked by. “Great. I got the basic circuits installed in the G89U’s prototype head. And I figured out a scheme to implant tons of experiences into its memory bank. And I got to a little romance, too”

“Tell me about the romance,” Yuri said with a strong Russian accent.

“I will not.” He threw his jacket over a chair. “I hired you to be my project assistant. Not my confessor.”

“All right. Then tell me about the head.”

Micael dropped into a swivel chair. “Old movies.”

The young Russian rubbed his meager whiskers. “Old movies?”

“Yup. We show the G89U’s lots of wholesome old movies at 200X. I call it accelerated experiences. We need to rig up a rack with multiple channeling inputs. I’ve ordered some silico-links for the meshed neuro-net memories from Associative Arrays, Inc. I want you to devise an assimilation circuit for the AE. As soon as you’ve tested it we’ll be able to begin.”

“Okay. But why movies?”

“They’re packed with social situations, morals, human motives, language context—all kinds of stuff.” Micael spun around in his chair.

“But there’s more violence and brutality in them than anything else.”

“No. I mean really old movies. Like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and ‘Up the Down Staircase,’ and ‘It Happened One Night.’”

“Never heard of them,” said Yuri.

“No wonder. You’re not even 20, are you? Well, we can set you up in the AE input rack, too.”

”Do I get popcorn?”

“Barely a month on the job, and the immigrant genius gives me wise cracks?” Micael jabbed him in the arm. He noticed a flat, boxy machine on the bench behind the young assistant. “What the hell is that?”

“It is the Randomax Name Generator,” Yuri answered. “It just came and I’ve been testing it.”

“Yes, I’ve been expecting it. We want to name each robot uniquely. This special order device is supposed to generate random, pronounceable, non-recurring names of up to three syllables on our patented nameplates.”

“Why not just assign each unit a number, or give each a real name?”

“No, company board members have decided that using numbers to identify each unit would be too much like car license plates—too inhuman. They wanted pronounceable names. Once people own these robots, they can call them anything they want, anyhow. How about we give it a try?”

“I don’t think the device is working.”

“Why not?”

“I’ll show you.” Yuri spoke at the device, “Generate.”

The “ACTIVE” light came on followed by a steely hum. “Mmmrrll.”

Micael cocked his head. “Whoa. That doesn’t sound very encouraging.”

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— 11 —

From the side slid a gray, rectangular plastic plate with the letters M U R L on it.

Yuri scanned the spec sheet that came with the box. “It’s supposed to sound out the name, then make the name plate.”

“Holy horror, we certainly don’t want our robot names to sound like the hum of a malfunctioning machine.” Micael tossed the name plate into the trash bin near by. “Give it another try.”

“I have many times,” replied Yuri as he handed Micael a dozen other name plates.

Micael read them. “Murl. Murl. Murl. Murl. What the…” Then he laughed. He walked over to the G89U in the assembly rack and taped one of the name plates to its chest. “You get that damn machine fixed, Yuri. There’s going to be only one Murl, and this is it.”

*    *    *

When Dawna Forrester entered the crowded waiting room, she was met by stares with no smiles. The dour welcome suited her mood.

She gave her name to the receptionist, then found a seat between an overweight boy with his left foot in a cast and an Asian woman rocking in her seat. She sighed, then read the signs tacked up on the walls. “At Hale and Hearty we give care and take care.” “If it hurts we can help.” “Our specialists are special.” Just sayings, she thought. The place was no better than any of the other franchised clinics where service was slow and the words “patients” and “patience” had become more than homonyms.

She gazed about the room where now no eyes would meet hers. The others either stared at the I-pads on their laps or at nothing somewhere in the distance. She picked up one of the I-pads and indifferently selected the news. She stared at the picture but was deaf to the sounds. Instead her mind was rehearsing, again, what she would say… but it changed… again. She mingled facts with rationalizations, then reasons with regrets. What should she mention, what shouldn’t she? She wasn’t even sure why she was here. It was because of…

“…Amber Day,” a news reporter declared from the device on her lap. “…that spectacular visual phenomenon seen around the globe some six weeks ago. All over the world scientists are meeting in hundreds of consortia combining thousands of reports filed by various research centers. Air samples have been taken and compared with the air in mine shafts, ocean waters and containers sealed during the event. Home videos are being analyzed frame by frame, pixel by pixel. Thousands of eye witnesses from every latitude and longitude are being interrogated. Unrelated scientific experiments conducted at the time of the mysterious event have been scrutinized for anomalies. And nothing, not one additional fact, can be established regarding the nature of Amber Day.”

Another voice broke the trance. “Dawna?”

She looked up from the I-pad to see a pale, rounded man standing by the door.

“Dawna, I’m surprised to see you here,” Dr. Den Forrester said. “Come on in.”

She smiled and followed him into his medical suite. When the door closed she gave him a hug.

“How have you been, Sweetie? I’ve missed you.”

“Fine, Daddy,” she lied. “You got some time?”

“Do I have some time? You wouldn’t believe how slow business has been for me. All the partners are working overtime and I’m reading back issues of journals. Did you see that waiting room? None of those patients are mine. I think I’ll be able to go to the International Obstetricians’ Conference this year without feeling guilty about it.”

They walked into a small examination room. He leaned against the sink cabinet and folded his arms in front of him. She sat on the padded table.

“Dad, I have to tell you something and I don’t want you to get upset.”

“What is it, Sweetie? What’s wrong?”

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— 12 —

“I found out I’m pregnant.”

Den’s eyes grew. A swell of elation spread a smile across his proud face. “Why that’s great!” He grabbed her arms. “Why would I be upset about that? I’m so happy for you. And me. A grandchild, at last.”

She pulled away from him. “Well, then, I’m upset.”

“Why? Is something wrong? Micael is the father, isn’t he?”

“Of course he is.” Dawna looked toward the ceiling. “Even though I don’t see him that often, he’s all I care about. But he’s not ready for a…” She started to cry. “And I’m not ready.”

“It’s okay.” He patted her shoulder. “When’s it due? Do you know?”

“December 20. I figured it out myself. It happened on Amber Day. That’s the only time it could have been.” She dropped her head and raised her eyes to look at her father the baby doctor. “Dad, I’m going to have an abortion.” With a sheepish smile of juvenile guilt she looked for acceptance in the glassy stare of daddy.

He sighed and turned away.

A muted baby’s scream came from the next room—then crying.

“Of course, it’s your decision…” He turned back to her with raised eyebrows. “But let me say something first.”

Dawna’s eyes rolled.

“You were only thirteen when your mother died. Since then, you’ve been the center of my life and the only family I have. I’m so much…” He was speaking too fast, trying to say everything that came to his mind as if this would be his only chance to speak. “I’ve delivered thousands of babies and I often think one day one of them will be my grandchild. I want you to have a husband and a child that I can visit. What’s wrong with that? You, Micael, and my grandchild.”

“Dad, dad, please.” She put her fingers on his chest. “It will happen, I promise you. You’ll have your grandchild. But not now—not this time. Please understand.”

They looked at each other. The crying beyond the walls stopped.

“Damn,” she said, “Why me? Why couldn’t it happen to people like Roda and Jake who want a child? Why should they have to go to a laboratory to have a baby?”

“A laboratory?”

“You know, in vitro fertilization.”

“Strange,” Den mumbled to himself. “I didn’t know anyone was doing that anymore. It’s been decades since I heard of such a thing.”

“They’ve even picked out the sex… and the name. Charity, they’re going to call her.”

Den nodded. He walked to the wall and back. “What does Micael think?”

Dawna looked at the ceiling again, this time with a sigh. “Micael doesn’t know.” She let her head fall to her chest. “He wouldn’t want a baby anyway.”

“What do you mean he wouldn’t? How do you know? Can you read his mind? Why don’t you ask him?”

“Ah, he’s so wrapped up in his job right now. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to tell you. I wanted it to be my decision. Yet I wanted to be certain. If I couldn’t tell you about it, then I wouldn’t be sure of my decision.” Tears came to her eyes. “I knew if you disagreed and I still wanted an abortion, I knew it would be right for me.”

“Look.” He took her hands. “There’s no reason to rush this decision. You have a few weeks to decide. This is Friday. Monday I’m going to the International Obstetricians’ Conference in New York. I’ll be back next Friday. Let’s talk one more time then, okay? Give yourself a week to think about this and to tell Micael. If a week doesn’t change your mind, I’ll even make the arrangements for you. If you do change your mind, it would make a lot of difference to me. What do you say?” He wiped his little girl’s eyes with his finger.

She glanced away, thought a moment. “No. I’ve made up my mind. I already have an appointment next Tuesday with Dr. Murgan.”

*    *    *

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— 13 —

On Sunday night, Dr. Den Forrester flew to New York for the annual meeting of obstetricians. He checked into his hotel, dined alone and then went straight to his room to retire for the night.

He lay in bed tossing and turning and thinking. Why doesn’t Dawna want the child? I could help raise him. What can I say to talk her out of it? The words got blurry and were lost in incidental dreams.

The next morning, he was greeted by the same revolving thoughts, and it was habit that got him showered and dressed. Not a breakfast eater, he went directly to the hotel lobby and found it bustling with baby doctors from all over the world.

“Hey, Den, what do you say?” someone called from behind. Dr. Forrester turned and saw an old friend, Dr. Delmar Johnson, about to slap him in the back. He put out his hand and the slap turned into a handshake.

“Okay, Doctor,” Den returned. “So how’s business?”

“Oh, don’t ask. I haven’t had a new case in almost two weeks.”

“I know what you mean. I guess every profession has its ups and downs.” The two doctors turned and started to walk towards the main conference room where the plenary session was being held. “What did you think of Amber Day?” Den asked.

“I missed it myself,” replied Dr. Johnson. “I was at home conked out. Quite impressive, I hear.” The two entered the large hall and walked down the aisle half way to the podium where they took seats. “Never like to sit too close or too far back.”

A bearded gentleman seated beside Dr. Forrester introduced himself. “Dr. Antonio Rossellino, from Italy. And you are?” he asked leaning over to see the name tag.

“I’m Dr. Den Forrester, United States, and this is Dr. Delmar Lloyd Johnson also from the United States. So you find time from all those Italian mothers to come to a conference?”

“Oh, it’sa okay to do that now’a.” Dr. Rossellino’s accent just became obvious. “We have a small’a drop in business’a. When I leave’a three days ago, no new mothers with’a child’a.”

Den Forrester felt a chill. “No new mothers.” He turned in his seat and introduced himself to a stately woman behind him. “How’s business been for you?”

“You know, Dr. Guevara and I were just comparing notes on that, and neither of us can remember a time when we’ve had no new patients in over a week. And even more coincidentally, his last patient and my last patient both dated conception back to Amber Day. Isn’t that odd?” She raised her eyebrows.

A tall, woman in a plain suit tried to squeeze through the row. “Excuse me, excuse me.”

Den grabbed her arm. “Have you had any new patients in the last week?”

“Certainly. Three as a matter of fact.” She yanked her arm free.

Den let out a breath. Coincidence. That’s all it was.

The woman continued, “and all are quite well along. Two are two months and the other one is almost three months.”

Den Forrester felt a pressure at his temples. No new pregnancies? How could that be? He squeezed past Dr. Rossellino to the aisle, then rushed past participants standing in groups talking and greeting each other. He made his way to the stage. Does this make sense? Am I about to make a fool out of myself? At the podium he rapped his knuckles on the microphone and loud thumps filled the hall.

“Attention. Everybody, can I have your attention.” The hubbub diminished as everyone turned to Dr. Forrester at center stage. “Doctors, I must ask what may seem a strange question, but please bear with me. Please, will you raise your hand if any of you have had any new cases, that is, expectant mothers that date conception after Amber Day. Any new pregnancies since then?”

There was a jumbled din of voices for several seconds, then a quiet fell upon the audience. Everyone craned, looking to count the hands. Everyone waited for the others to signal. Everyone waited. And when it became clear that nobody would raise a hand, the quiet was broken by a rising tide of human voices.

Blood rushed to Den’s face. “No,” came weakly from his lips. “Dawna. Don’t…” Then his voice boomed out over the room, “NOooo!”

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